In 1993, twenty years ago, I wrote a book based on my twenty-five years of probing contact with indigenous people in which I came to basically the same conclusions as those enunciated last week by Marion Buller, chairperson of the recent inquiry into the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls: that, as expressed in her report, “Canada, from its pre-colonial past to today, has aimed to ‘destroy indigenous peoples.’
"Canada has displayed a continuous policy, with shifting expressed motives but an ultimately steady intention, to destroy indigenous peoples physically, biologically, and as social units,” she has concluded.
I remember today as clearly as the day I first heard it, being told in 1968 about the built-in discrimination against women in the Indian Act. I discovered this when I contacted the Chief of the Lake Helen reserve, on Lake Nipigon, Willie John, a wonderful little man, master of many trades, tireless campaigner for the rights of returned servicemen, of which he was one, and relentless defender of the rights of his people. While in Britain with the services, he had married an Englishwoman, and he introduced me to his wife, a woman born in Yorkshire, and told me she was regarded by the government, because of the Indian Act, as a status Indian.
I had been passed on to Willie by a native woman in Thunder Bay, Mrs. Paul McRae, wife of a high school principal who later became a Member of Parliament. Though she still regarded herself as an Indian, and for all I knew spoke her native language, she had lost her status by marrying a white man, and was therefore regarded as a white person by the government. A few days after meeting her, I met one of her brothers, who was a chief and who argued with me strenuously in favour of this discrimination. Later I learned that Daphne Odjig, one of the leading native artists, was her sister, and another brother was Wilf Pelletier, a maverick character who for years expressed the spirit of native resistance wherever he was to be found.
I was staggered that the state could have interfered so blatantly in the intimate lives of anyone, but it was only the first of many amazing revelations, most of them contained not just in the contemporary appalling condition of most Indian reserves, which I was only on the point of discovering for myself, but also, as I found out later, in the written legislative record compiled by Canadian legislators over the decades since at least the 1840s, legislation that in 1876 was bound together by the newly-formed nation of Canada into fulfilment of its newly-undertaken task of being responsible “for Indians and the lands reserved for Indians.”
Here is how I described the Indian Act on page 95 of my book, People of Terra Nullius:.
Many Canadians who discover what has been done under the Indian Act can scarcely believe that such things happened in Canada: the all-embracing totalitarian controls taken over every aspect of Indian life; the deliberate degradation of native cultures; the mean-spirited regulations that first reduced aboriginals to penury and then ensured that they stayed poor; the fascistic race-classification system, invented and administered by a race of faceless civil servants; the neglect of aboriginal education and health; the deliberate subjugation of all things Indian to the physical and psychological dominance of non-Indians. These historical cruelties are responsible for the collective misery and individual personal tragedies of much contemporary aboriginal life, to such an extent that each aboriginal nation described in this book is engaged in a gargantuan struggle to overcome the consequences of the 120 years they have been subject to the Act.
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) had not yet reported, but it did in 1996, with a report of 4,000 pages and 440 suggested sweeping changes in relationships between the State and the indigenous peoples --- its findings were put on the shelf, and forgotten;
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, arising from the settlement over the injustice of residential schooling, reported in 2015 with 94 calls to action --- calls that have been, on the whole, largely ignored;
and now the MMIWG Commission has reported with its list of 231 “calls for justice”.
Surely, no one could deny that Canada has a great record of making calls for action, justice or change. Over just these three reports, 765 urgent calls to action.
This could be a Monty Python farce, this record.
And these are far from being the only reports of this nature: others, establishing the facts of how indigenous people are habitually more often arrested, more often charged, more often convicted, more often given harsher sentences, and on and on…..have been the subject of reports in Alberta, Manitoba. And probably other provinces as well.
I finished my book by recording how in its first round of meetings, the RCAP, although receiving little attention from the media, had visited 36 communities and heard from 800 witnesses, all of which left the commissioners with many more questions than answers, some of which I posed in ending my book:
“Will aboriginal self-government require more land and resources to be placed under the control of aboriginal peoples? Assuredly, yes. But if so, (to quote another of the commission’s questions) are Canadians willing to ensure that aboriginal people achieve this? Only time will tell. (Later 2019 note: time has told. They are not so willing.)
“ I hope that the public sympathy now felt towards the aboriginal cause will be translated into meaningful action of this kind. Much will depend on whether the Canadian public continues to accept that the injustices of the past must be redressed. If Canadians are as tolerant and pragmatic as we like to think, we should have no difficulty in recognizing that we cannot indefinitely maintain our own Third World of poverty, discrimination and injustice, while still aspiring to fulfil a moral role in global affairs.”
Perhaps I should add that my 1993 book appears to have been read by only a handful of people. It was issued without any notable promotional budget (which went instead to the memoirs of General Mackenzie about the Bosnian war, published by the same publisher), received hardly any reviews, and generally, so far as I have been able to discover, sold no more than a handful of copies, a few hundred at most.
With a record like this, is it any wonder that, twenty-six years later, I am shrugging my shoulders and saying at the end of each piece I write (with acknowledgements to the American novelist Don Marquis): “Wot the hell,…wot the hell…toujours gai, toujours gai!”